Sexual harassment is something that has gained lots of attention in recent years. With the #MeToo movement and the accessibility of social media, we are given a platform to voice our opinions and spread awareness on the matter quite easily. We do, however, tend to overlook the discreet ways that films try to idealize harassment and pass it off as something romantic.
Romance is often longed for, leading many to equate relationships to fairytales. Yet, what we perceive as romance could just be glorified versions of sexual harassment. Take for instance, Sleeping Beauty, a popular Disney Princess film. The princess, having had a spell cast on her, is found sleeping in the woods. Arrives Prince Charming who kisses her and breaks the spell, leading them to fall in love and live happily ever after.
However, this is not all that it seems to be.
The tale of Sleeping Beauty romanticizes the idea of obtaining sexual gratification without another’s consent. The exposure of such films at a young age perpetuate the acceptance of this idea and embeds it in our minds. The damsel in distress theme, which has lessened in recent films, perpetuates the ideology that one needs to be saved by a man to be happy. Some recognize it be a one-way ticket to a woman’s heart as it leads one to believe that they are entitled to another’s love and affection if they have put in the effort of loving the woman. This logic is deeply problematic as it shifts the blame onto women as they are then labelled ungrateful for the acts of kindness.
Moreover, such logic lead acts of stalking, physical abuse and emotional blackmail to arise. There has reportedly been an increase in incels, involuntary celibates, a group of men who deem women to be superficial and shallow beings, therefore only being attracted to a man’s physical appearance. In addition, they believe violence is necessary as a form of punishment to be inflicted on women due to the group’s lack of female attention. A recent terrorist attack in Toronto whereby 10 people were killed by an incel illustrates the danger associated with this mindset, as it does not only affect women but everyone.
Coming a little closer to home, Malay films and dramas often encourage rape culture. The absence of blame on rape victims leads it to be deemed acceptable to be shown on screen in many drama plots. Consensual sex, however, is seen as haram, or forbidden, and shameful. For example, ‘Ombak Rindu’, a film adored by the masses despite being deeply problematic. The film being so successful that it made 10.9 million at the box office. ‘Ombak Rindu’ tells the story of a gadis kampung named Izzah, played by Maya Karin, who was sold off by her uncle to become a prostitute.
The damsel in distress theme, which has lessened in recent films, perpetuates the ideology that one needs to be saved by a man to be happy
Being bought by Hariz, played by Aaron Aziz, with the intention of making Izzah his mistress, he proceeds to rape her. Izzah then begs for him to marry her to ensure that their relationship is kept on clean moral grounds. Not only does this film perpetuate rape culture but it also endorses the idea that marrying your rapist is right and acceptable. Furthermore, it promotes the ideology that women should remain in abusive relationships for the sake of keeping it halal.
Another Malaysian-made film that is equally as problematic is ‘Suami Aku Ustaz’ – a story about an underaged girl marrying an Ustaz, an Islamic scholar. In the film, Alisa, played by Nora Danish, is arranged to marry her cousin, Hafiz, played by Ady Putra, an Ustaz, after her parent’s return from Umrah. Though it does not violate any religious laws, it does sentimentalize underaged marriage. The film which was adapted from a book written by Hannah Dhaniyah portrays Alisa’s age to be ambiguous to the viewer, though it is apparent that she was still in secondary school.
Hafiz, on the other hand, is a middle-aged man that did not reject to marrying his significantly younger cousin. Nearing the end, a scene of the couple on their marital bed was carefully edited, as June Low tweeted, the film had portrayed the act of Hafiz’s marriage to Alisa to be pure and innocent though it is unclear if they had sex.
Many fail to recognize the importance of these films and their impact on society. Films like ‘Ombak Rindu’ and ‘Suami Aku Ustaz’ creates unhealthy expectations regarding love and relationships. The relationship in both films revolve around religion, utilizing religion to promote the acceptance of such circumstances. Religion has been misused as a tool to exercise misogyny. As exemplified by how YB Nurul Izzah was admonished by a radio caller on the way she dressed as her tudung would hike up, therefore “nampak bentuk tu la”, illustrating how religion is a tool used to reduce a woman’s worth to her attire.
Moreover, it allows men to disguise their objectification of women as moral policing. Regarding the case of marrying one’s rapist, the issue as discussed by MP Shahabudin Yahaya claim allowing such marriages would provide the victims a better life. Furthermore, it is legal for girls under the age of 16 to be married with the permission of a Shariah judge.
Does this mean we shouldn’t be watching films about sexual harassment?
It is not wrong to have films revolving around sexual harassment. Movies aren’t obliged to exclude the illicit and the violent, especially in portrayals of reality. However, it is how the theme of sexual harassment is discussed, if it is glorified or if it’s truths are revealed. For instance, Trainspotting is a film which discusses it well. The film follows the story of a recovering heroin addict, Mark Renton, who has sex with a girl named Diane after meeting her at a night club. It is revealed that Diane is underaged and plans to blackmail Renton into staying in a relationship with her. Otherwise, she would report the incident as rape to the police. The film talks about the realities of having sex with a minor. Though Renton was unaware of Diane’s age, he was aware of the consequences that would result if Diane claimed rape. Diane’s character brings forth the topic of harassment through her use of blackmail to coerce Renton into the relationship.
Another film that discusses rape and the danger of victim-blaming is “Big Driver.” It tells the story of a crime-mystery writer whose car stalls on the way back from a meet-and-greet. A pick-up truck driver stops to help but ends up raping her and choking her unconscious. Upon her awakening, she finds herself in a culvert full of female bodies. As she leaves to seek help, she fears that the rape will create a scandal. As women, it is safe to say many face the fear of harassment, being kidnapped or being mugged. Yet when such incidences occur, many refuse to speak up. The film properly portrays the fear that integrated in young girls from an early age.
So, what can we do about it?
As viewers, there is not much that we can do about the film industry who continue to make blockbusters which romanticize rape and harassment. Film makers however can play a vital role and change the point of view in which these films are made. On top of that, it is important to encourage and push for the visibility of female film makers who can aid in the change of the view of such films. Calling out those that glorify harassment will allow us to progress further. With the platform we are given today, I feel that it is our personal responsibility to educate the public regarding these matters. Though we have come a long way the incorporation of female empowerment on screen, there are still some who continue to search for happy endings in the worst ways possible.